Lou Malnati’s is known for serving pizza that is a ceremony in and of itself. The hefty pie comes out in a cast-iron pan with a flaky crust and a colossal amount of cheese — demanding a knife, fork, and your full attention.
But the most crucial part of the business, says CEO Marc Malnati, is taking care of the relationships between the 2,400 people in the organisation.
It requires a separate kind of ritual.
Every other Thursday, the Lou Malnati’s leadership team meets. But they don’t immediately launch into an agenda.
Like other forward-thinking CEOs, Malnati uses a signature technique when running these meetings.
“We’ll start our meeting in one room,” he says. “It’s a room with couches and softer chairs, and we’ll be in a circle and we’ll check in — and we’ll react and we’ll clear.”
Clearing, Malnati explains, is the process of talking through any emotional baggage that may have collected in a team. It prevents backbiting, sarcasm, and other behaviours that can make people start resenting one another.
He gives us an example of what one employee might say to another.
“I hated when you said this the other day; I’m still carrying it, and I want you to know,” he says. “Part of what I need is for you to just hear me, and I want to know if you really think this. If you’re really saying this, I want to understand.”
Everybody on the team has the chance to voice their concerns. It might take an hour, or even two, for everyone on the team to speak, react, and clear.
They take a 10-minute break to drink water, check email, or go to the bathroom, and then they get to the “business part” of the leadership meeting.
At that point, “the agenda is just like other leadership teams would follow, but we always do the relational part first,” Malnati says. “It’s every bit as important and oftentimes more important.”
The return that comes with that time investment is profound.
“I get to know where everyone’s at,” he says, “and they get to know that I’m on their side.”
The pre-meeting provides a space for disagreement to be voiced and to slowly, surely, and precisely be turned into agreement, or at least mutual understanding.
“We get to share our deepest emotions with one another,” Malnati says, “because it’s a family.”
That provides a huge advantage in the marketplace. As research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business has found, companies where employees feel a family-like commitment to their organisation are the most likely to succeed over the long term.
The business has grown nicely. Lou Malnati’s expanded from two restaurants in 1981 to 20 in 2001. By the end of next year, it plans to have 44 locations.
For Malnati, it’s intuitive. “Most of the time, we have nothing to do with Chicago pizza,” he says. “The biggest job is to maintain relationships and care about people.”
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